Zach Britton was one of the most dominant players in baseball in 2016. Not that I’m telling you something you didn’t already know. The guy had a season for the record books, converting 47 saves without blowing a single one. His stuff - and by stuff, I mean his sinker, because he threw it 91.97 percent of the time - was so nasty that hitters were limited to a stingy .162 batting average. They knew it was coming and there wasn’t anything they could do about it.
Like many Orioles fans, when I heard AC/DC’s “For Those About To Rock” played at Camden Yards at the start of the ninth inning, I didn’t have a doubt that the O’s would be in the win column. Britton was Mr. Automatic, a sure thing every time he had the ball. That’s something that’s extremely valuable for any club and an incredibly rare asset.
I wasn’t expecting Britton to repeat that performance this season. That seemed like asking for the impossible. Instead, my expectations were that he would continue to pitch at a star level, maybe perhaps allowing a blown save or two along the way. I was just trying to be realistic.
Unfortunately, the Orioles have been without their star closer in the ninth. Britton suffered a left forearm injury that landed him on the 10-day disabled list. As baseball fanatics and elementary science students know, the forearm is connected to the elbow and elbow injuries spell doom for pitchers. However, the Orioles seemed optimistic that Britton’s injury wasn’t too serious. Then he flew back to Baltimore for a precautionary MRI. Needless to say, his status remains unclear and O’s fans are hoping for good news.
Britton’s shoes are tough ones to fill. Not only is the ninth a challenge, but he’s set the standard incredibly high for whoever jumps into that roll. Wednesday night, Brad Brach accepted to challenge and successfully converted his first save of the season. He needed just nine pitches to do it and threw eight of them for strikes. He followed that with another 1-2-3 inning in the 10th last night.
With Britton out, I have to assume that Brach is Buck Showalter’s go-to guy for the ninth inning, and he has absolutely earned the chance to become a closer. Brach was stellar last season, pitching to a 2.05 ERA (2.92 fielding independent pitching) over 79 innings in 71 games. He earned his first All-Star honors by limiting opponents to a 1.038 WHIP and striking out 10.5 per nine innings. It was a career year for the Orioles righty, and in 2017 he’s picked up right where he left off.
It’s hard to make much of anyone’s stats on April 21, especially those of a reliever who has thrown just eight innings, but the signs are all encouraging in this small sample. Brach’s strikeouts per nine are up, his WHIP is down and he’s allowed just one hit on the season. As he did last season, Brach is keeping the ball in the strike zone and challenging hitters.
It’s unfair to compare Brach’s game to Britton’s, but everyone is going to do it, so we may as well here too. The main difference between the two guys is that Brach throws four pitches (four-seam fastball, sinker, changeup and slider), while Britton throws two (sinker and curveball) and heavily relies on just one. In a traditional sense, Britton’s game is a bit different from those of most closers. That lights-out sinker produces a lot of ground balls, and the Orioles’ solid infield defense helps their closer record those final three outs. Last season, we saw a little more swing-and-miss against Britton, which helped to produce his historic year. That sinker caused batters to whiff 17.79 percent of the time.
Balls in play against Brach aren’t going to be on the ground as much as they are with Britton on the mound. However, Brach’s skill in the swing-and-miss category could be even better. Last year, batters whiffed 13.98 percent of the time against his fastball, 20.71 percent against the change and 17.89 percent against the slider. Those numbers are up even more in 2017: 21.57 percent against the fastball, 26.67 percent against the change. As I’ve written all year so far, we’re playing with small samples, but this data is encouraging if Brach holds the ninth while Britton recovers.
There truly is no replacing a Britton. It could take years before we see a closer repeat the success he had in 2016. But Brach is a guy that some teams would love to have as their go-to closer. Given the chance, I think he’ll step right into the role and succeed for the Birds in 2017.
Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_wilt. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.